Have we ever been “modern” at all?

Bruno Latour has an interesting take with regards to modernity. In his book, We Have Never Been Modern, Latour claims that modernity emerged from two rigid absolutisms – the division of human culture from nonhuman nature, or the difference between the soft sciences and the hard sciences and the distinction between the present and the past.

The Modern Constitution, Latour’s term for modernity, is born from the dichotomy of nature and culture, and their associated forms of knowledge. From nature, we have the sciences (knowledge of how things are in themselves) and from culture (language, society, politics) we have the discourses of morality (sociology, psychology, etcetera).

It is the essence of modernity to take these two kinds of knowledge as separate and distinct, and that they ought to be kept separate. Latour argues that the modern condition entails the invention of “a separation between the scientific power charged with representing things and the political power charged with representing subjects.” (p. 29)

At the very moment this invention is upheld, which was established during the scientific revolution in the 17th century, it is also the same moment the middle ground begins to proliferate. There is a gradual increase of objects or things being ‘drawn to social life,’ while at the same time it becomes more and more dependent upon what it draws from nature. The distinction of modernity is exactly where the problem lies, for Latour means to focus on the ‘quasi-objects’ that emerges from the space between non-human nature and human culture.

The first distinction of modernity leads to the second absolute division, that of temporality. The separation of culture from nature is then mapped onto the division of the present from the past: “the asymmetry between nature and culture then becomes an asymmetry between past and future. The past was the confusion of things and men; the future is what will no longer confuse them.” (p. 71) In other words, modernization presupposes the uniform nature of time as something that progresses in a teleological fashion and the homogeneity of the present moment.

The increasingly proliferation of ‘quasi-objects’ problematizes the distinction of modernity, and a quote from Latour illustrates this: “no one can now categorize actors that belong to the ‘same time’ in a single coherent group. no one knows any longer whether the reintroduction of the bear in Pyrenees, kolkhozes, aerosols, the Green Revolution, the anti-smallpox vaccine, Star Wars, the Muslim religion, partridge hunting, the French Revolution, service industries, labor unions, cold fusion, Bolshevism, relativity, Slovak nationalism, commercial sailboats, and so on, are outmoded, up to date, futuristic, atemporal, nonexistent, or permanent…” (p. 74)

The argument is as follows: Since modernity has not in fact purified itself of nature, but implicated itself ever more deeply within it, there is no distinction to be made between modern and premodern cultures. Nor is there a clear and distinct ‘culture’ because “the very notion of culture is an artifact created by bracketing Nature off. Culture (different or universal) do not exist any more than nature does. There are only nature-cultures.” (p. 104) therefore, since the idea of the modern entails the assertion that we have freed ourselves or will free ourselves from nature, we have never been modern.

The very issue I was hoping to drive at and leave the obvious inference to the reader. Some may grasp it and immediately realize why postmodernism is not an irrefutable doctrine since it depends on the presumption of modernism itself.

One common strand in postmodern writings is a general apprehension of the unevenness of the times, the mixture of the old and the new that belonged to different times. However, postmodernism still retains many habits of modern thinking that entails the view that it itself is a new development, a new ‘now.’

Latour does admit that his (amodernist attitudes) observations do overlap the other ‘postmodernists,’ but he does not identify with them:

“The postmoderns are right about the dispersion; every contemporary assembly is polytemporal. But they are wrong to retain the framework and keep on believing in the requirement of continual novelty that modernism demanded. By mixing elements of the past together in the form of collages and citations, the postmoderns recognize to what extend these citations are truly outdated. Moreover, it is because they are outmoded that the postmoderns dig them up, in order to shock the former ‘modernist’ avant-gardes who no longer know at what altar to worship. but it is a long way from a provocative quotation extracted out of a truly finished past to reprise, repetition or revisiting of a past that has never disappeared.” (p. 74)

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...a philosophisticator who utters heresies, thinks theothanatologically and draws like Kirby on steroids.